Hearts' most effective players revealed with several new signings to come
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Hearts’ impact on the cinch Premiership throughout season 2022/23 was considerable, and not only because they finished fourth and qualified for European competition. Their aptitude across the field of play is highlighted by individual player statistics which reveal their most pivotal and effective figures.
In an era when every level of elite sport appears to driven by data, the coaching, medical and fitness experts at Riccarton are constantly monitoring every professional player on the payroll. The recently-appointed management team of Steven Naismith, Frankie McAvoy and Gordon Forrest already know the capabilities of those within the first-team dressing room.
Performance indicators show that some of the league’s best talent is currently residing at Tynecastle Park. That will be supplemented by several summer signings in key positions in order to mount a stronger challenge next season. Hearts are eager to regain third place from Aberdeen, although reflecting on the campaign just ended is a worthwhile exercise to determine exactly what they have at their disposal.
The goalkeeping position is perhaps the most difficult to judge following Craig Gordon’s season-ending leg-break on Christmas Eve. He played 16 league games before that horrendous injury at Tannadice Park. He faced 84 shots in total during that period, conceding 26 goals. Zander Clark, his replacement, fared similarly. He managed 21 Premiership appearances from Christmas onwards and faced 80 shots altogether, with 27 goals conceded.
Of those defenders tasked with protecting the goalkeeper, one man stands out in maroon. Craig Halkett suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in that same game against United in December, an unfortunate circumstance which robbed Hearts of their best stopper. If we focus solely on league fixtures only in this instance, they conceded an average of 0.71 goals per game this term with Halkett. He sits, by some distance, ahead of Nathaniel Atkinson [1.25 goals per game], Alex Cochrane [1.29], Kye Rowles [1.30] and Michael Smith [1.42].
The manner of goals Hearts lost during the second half of the campaign was especially galling with Halkett looking on from the stand. Set-pieces became a worrying predicament as opponents across the country capitalised on a defensive weakness which was nowhere near as prevalent with Halkett on the pitch. The need for a new centre-back this summer seems obvious to ease pressure on him to return.
The defender with the most tackles won in all competitions was Cochrane with 44. He also recorded 42 interceptions. Smith succeeded in 33 tackles and 28 interceptions, Toby Sibbick 26 tackles and 22 interceptions, Atkinson 24 tackles and 21 interceptions, with Rowles on 22 tackles and 30 interceptions. Smith has now left after his contract expired and a new right-back is high on Hearts’ priority list.
In midfield, Peter Haring was a notable absentee for several months through injury and his influence was missed. Cammy Devlin, Barrie McKay and Andy Halliday completed the most passes during the season, although defenders Cochrane, Smith and Stephen Kingsley actually bettered their middle-of-the-field counterparts. Cochrane completed 231 passes, Smith 229 and Kingsley 180. McKay managed 152, Devlin 151 and Halliday 146.
Toby Sibbick’s pass completion percentage of 89.6 per cent was higher than any other Hearts player with the exception of one man. Again, Halkett is untouchable in this department, too. Of the 22 passes he attempted in between injuries, all 22 reached their intended target. His value to the Edinburgh club is clear and he will be a vital part of their team again once fully fit later this year.
Midfield tackling and ball-winning are just as important, of course. Devlin was Hearts’ most effective challenger in that zone, as shown by 39 tackles won and 37 interceptions in all competitions. Next came Orestis Kiomourtzoglou [25 tackles won, 20 interceptions], Jorge Grant [23 tackles won and 24 interceptions] and Halliday [20 tackles won, eight interceptions].
In attack, no-one will be surprised in the slightest that Lawrence Shankland ranks as Tynecastle’s most productive and prolific player in every area. More of him later. Hearts took the lead 23 times this season and conceded an equaliser on eight of those occasions. So they successfully defended their advantage 65 per cent of the time. At the other end of the field, they fell behind 27 times and levelled on 13 instances. That equates to an equalising rate of 48 per cent.
Shankland enjoyed a record-breaking first year in Edinburgh. He claimed 28 goals in 47 appearances and also contributed a number of assists as well as taking the captain’s armband mid-season after Gordon’s injury. He regained a place in the Scotland squad and played the final minutes of March’s enthralling and historic victory over Spain at Hampden Park.
The striker is on international duty again this week preparing for forthcoming European Championship qualifiers against Norway and Georgia. His decision to leave Belgian club Beerschot and reunite with his former Dundee United manager Robbie Neilson last summer has proven to be wise judgment on the parts of both men.
Josh Ginnelly finished the campaign strongly but has yet to sign a new contract to extend his stay at Hearts. He managed 13 goals in 41 outings in total, with 10 in his final 17 games underlining how much he thrived after Neilson shunted him into the centre-forward position. His relationship and understanding with Shankland was a key component in helping the club finish fourth, even if that was one place below their intended target.
Third-top scorer in Gorgie was shared between winger Alan Forrest and the Wigan Athletic loanee Stephen Humphrys. They both finished on five – Forrest from 47 appearances and Humphrys from 25. The difference between the top two on the scoring charts and the rest underlines the importance of Shankland and Ginnelly. Alongside Halkett and Gordon, they are quite clearly the spine of the current Hearts team.